It’s been a good few years for Lovecraft fans as there have been a number of games based upon his horrific creatures and lore, such as The Sinking City, Call of Cthulhu, and Conarium, how about one more? Moons of Madness takes the genre away from disturbing towns surrounded by hallowed waters which house demonic beasts and vile creatures, and it places us upon Mars, a waterless, desert planet which is about as isolated as you can get – I mean, have you seen the movie The Martian? So, with a new setting and spin on the popular theme, just how well has it been pulled off?
From developer Rock Pocket Games, it seems like this type of game is a massive departure from what they’ve created previously, having released Shitflings, a colourful puzzle platformer, as their only console title prior to this narrative horror experience. However, don’t let that sway your judgment on Moons of Madness as they have gone all-in when creating this game, complete with jump scares, horrific creatures, beautiful visuals, and interesting puzzles.
So, let’s head off to Mars and see how good the Lovecraftian horror set in space was to play through…
You are Shane Newehart, an engineer who has been stationed on Mars in order to maintain and fix any issues which may arise at Trailblazer Alpha before the transport ship Cyrano arrives with a new team. However, due to the limited clearance you have of the facility, you know very little in regards to the true purpose of this isolated research outpost. Suddenly, a few days before they get here, crucial systems begin to shut down, you begin having nightmares and visions, the greenhouse is contaminated with an unusual mist, and your colleagues haven’t returned from their mission – what’s going on?
Thanks to the forced isolation of being on a distant planet, your only option is to set out and investigate the facility and single-handedly fix the broken machinery upon this desolate planet. That’s when the paranoia and fear sets in, you begin to see things which may or may not be there, experience flashbacks of your youth, and try to remain sane whilst freaky shit is going on all around you.
Can you uncover the truth behind the research which was going on here? Will you even begin to understand the creatures and visions you’ve been seeing both whilst awake and asleep? And, will you ever see your crewmates again, alive? It’s up to you to figure out the answer to these questions and many, many more, as you investigate the Moons of Madness…
Moons of Madness is an exploration horror game with puzzle mechanics and an interesting narrative. If I was to liken it to recent games, I’d say it reminded me a lot of Close to the Sun, Layers of Fear 2, and The Blair Witch Project. Two aspects from those titles reared its head within this game, mechanics which I’m not the biggest fan of; stealth and running away from things. I’ll cover these in more detail later on, but they’re not as bad as I’ve seen previously, although they do drastically change the feeling of the game, turning it from a nice jump-scare and psychological horror title into a more stressful and frustrating one.
The majority of the game sees you walking or running around, finding out new information on what happened whilst you solve puzzles and automatically drive the Rover. This is where the game shines in my opinion, there’s a lot of backstory within the game, delivered through flashbacks, PC terminals, and interactions with the crew. However, to progress the story, you’ll find yourself having to solve puzzles via remote controlling objects with your arm-PDA, resetting frequencies, finding key items and information all around you, and completing some logic-based puzzles as well.
My only nitpick, other than the stealth and running away mechanics, was the Rover. Whereas games like Deliver us the Moon lets you manually drive the vehicles around the surface, exploring and discovering new locations, the Rover in this game simply self-drives to the next location with no input from you after you turn it on. Moons of Madness is a linear experience, so I can see why it automatically takes you to the next place – as they want you to stick to the path – but it would have been nice to have the chance to mess around a little.
I’ve seen a lot of people bring this up, so I thought I’d mention it as well. Moons of Madness is split into two parts, the first is focused on setting up the story, introducing you to puzzles, having you explore the base, and feed you a lot of exposition and background. The gameplay for this half is quite slow as it’s building up the story and suspense. The second half of the game is when it becomes more action-orientated and involved, requiring you to be on your guard as well as work through the aforementioned stealth segments. Personally, I like this approach as many other games have used it, slowly easing you in then unleashing the ‘crazy’. As such, although other critics didn’t like the switch in pace and mechanics, I thought it was done well as it reflects the characters experiences and emotions as the game progresses – Calm to WTF.
Stealth and Running away
Okay, so what’s my issue with these two mechanics? If you’ve read my review for Close to the Sun, you’ll know I didn’t like the chase sequences in that game because they were really fiddly and almost impossible to complete without dying due to the QTEs you had to perform. Similarly, Layers of Fear 2 stressed me out as I kept getting caught by the creature due to running the wrong way. Thankfully, Moons of Madness is a lot more forgiving and there are no trophies which require you to complete the game without dying or getting caught (the way it should be).
The actual chase sequences aren’t too often and the route you have to take is rather obvious, plus the thing chasing you is quite slow as it waddles towards you. So, this particular mechanic didn’t annoy me as much as I thought it might have, even though it does add stress and tension into the gameplay (which in this case, isn’t a bad thing).
The stealth segments are similar, not too bad but also quite a contrast to the gameplay up until that point. Without giving away any spoilers, there’s a segment which requires you to hack security cameras with your gear in order to face them away from you so you can run past them. If you’re spotted (as they return to their original patrolling pattern after a few seconds), then an enemy will emerge which will chase and kill you. Now, I’ve seen people play this on PC and they had the chance to run away once they were caught – I never got this to work on PS4, they just kept picking me up and slapping me about until I died.
There are also some stealth segments where the enemies are already patrolling AND there are security cameras, requiring you to hide, move the camera, wait until the guard goes by, then run out and hope neither sees you. Again, I fully understand the mechanics and concept, it made me all tense and stressed out due to being caught a number of times. But up until now, the game has been an exploration horror game, I wasn’t expecting any stealth at this point. Looking back on the game (I’ve completed it twice and have the platinum), if you’ve played and like games such as the ones I mentioned previously, which have stealth and chasing sequences, you’ll like Moons of Madness – it’s a lot more forgiving and ‘easier’.
When you’re not running away, hiding in the shadows, or reading the large amounts of backstory and exposition upon the various computer terminals scattered around the facility, you’ll be most likely trying to solve puzzles. These range from interacting with the environment by finding and using power cores or activating magical orbs, to more logic-based conundrums such as lining up mystical stones, creating a weapon, or solving a number-based distribution puzzle. Each one is fun to solve and not too challenging to work out, so it doesn’t distract you from the overall narrative.
There are also some interesting remote-based puzzles which require you to use your arm-based PDA to both interact and operate various machinery. One of the fan favourites has to be the pipe-based puzzles which we’ve seen in games ranging from Bioshock to pretty much every Artifex Mundi title, a puzzle which requires you to connect A to B via the use of pipes. However, this one is a little different as you also have to go through various plus and minus numbers in order to regulate the current so that it equals the same number stated on both ends of the pipe. In short – it’s a more advanced version of the classic puzzle.
Another format which you’ll see throughout the game is the frequency puzzles. These require you to rotate various satellites left, right, up, or down in order to find a strong signal. These were fun.
I personally thought the balance between the horror, puzzle, narrative, stealth, and exploration aspects of the game were done very well. I never felt like I was being overwhelmed with one particular mechanic as it mixed them all together into a big narrative-adventure pie. Sure, I felt the forced stealth parts were a bit annoying, but they added an extra level of fear and suspense on top of a well-developing story. The only other thing which got me a little frustrated was the jump scare moments as I’m not a fan of those. Don’t get me wrong – they worked perfectly within Moons of Madness – I jumped every single time, even when replaying the game – but I’m just not generally a fan of them as a whole.
To all those who are currently going crazy and stressing out over the lockdown which is in place over COVID-19, imagine you were isolated on another planet with nobody around to talk to or interact with… We have it easy, Shaun was beginning to positively go insane, cooped up all alone within this abandoned facility without his crew members or any other signs of life outside of the nightmares he was having! Moons of Madness perfectly represents this with his visions, dreams, flashbacks, the music, the visuals, and the overall narrative of the game. Although loosely based on Lovecraftian elements, the effects of the events within this game, and the direction the game goes in, is very different to games such as Call of Cthulhu or The Sinking City.
Trophies/The road to platinum
It took me 1.5 playthroughs to obtain the platinum within Moons of Madness due to a missable trophy which I, obviously, missed. However, for those who are wanting to complete the game once and obtain everything with ease, it’s perfectly doable without the use of any guide or help, you just need to glance over the trophies beforehand. Unlike Games such as Close to the Sun, there’s no speed run trophies, none requiring you to perfect the game without dying, and none revolved around running away from enemies, it’s all about exploring your surroundings – discovering what’s going on, and working your way through the story.
I can’t recall the time it took to get the platinum, or at least play through the game once, but I think it was around the eight-hour mark. I know people have completed it in as little as four, but again, in reference to Close to the Sun – that game took me around five to six hours to complete yet you ‘could’ finish it in around 90 minutes if you rushed through it. So, take your time and enjoy the experience and you’ll get more out of it.
As stated above, I really enjoyed the way the developers brought the world to life and made it feel very immersive and realistic through both the visual and audio design. Visually, the game looks fantastic, the lighting in the dark hallways, the creepy figures both far away and in your face, and the realistic textures of every-day items, they all combine into a beautiful-looking atmospheric horror game set within fantastical, yet realistic, locations. I did notice a few blurry textures on things, such as books when you look at the back of them, but everything else was crystal clear on the PS4 Pro.
Speaking of books, there’s one with a visible barcode within Moons of Madness – so I looked up the UPC barcode number. The number relates to a game published by Funcom, the publishers of this game. I’m not sure if it’s technically an Easter Egg or simply used because it’s to one of their own products (rather than a random item).
What I was really surprised to see is that all the voices were done by three people, despite being more than three characters. Shane was David Stanbra, who has been in a number of TV shows and video games; all other male characters were Christopher Swindle, who has also been in a number of video games and animated films/shows; and all the women were voiced by Mona Marshall, a very high-profile voice actress who is most well known for portraying Sheila Broflovski in South Park! As such, the voice acting is great in Moons of Madness – literally nothing to fault as each actor played their various roles perfectly.
Moons of Madness perfectly balanced the various gameplay mechanics to create a creepy, cryptic exploration-adventure horror game. The audio and visual quality helps immerse you within the dark fantastical world the developers have created, making you feel like you’re all alone, isolated from everyone around you other than the nightmares which live within your head. The story is engaging, the scares will make you jump, and the puzzles are fun to solve, what more could you want from a Lovecraft-themed horror game set on Mars?
Moons of Madness£24.99
- - Creepy and suspenseful atmosphere via the visual and sound design
- - Great voice acting which really sets the mood
- - Fun puzzles which progressively become trickier
- - An engaging story which keeps you interested right until the end
- - An interesting take on Lovecraftian lore in space
- - The stealth segment was a bit of a surprise, changing the dynamic of the gameplay for a few scenes
- - You can't manually drive the Rover
- - The game is very linear (not really a negative but those looking for a more open-ended exploration game may not like how linear it is)
- The initial chapters are quite slow (again, not an issue for me but those who like more action and excitement, this tends to happen in the second chapter onwards)